LOS ANGELES -- UCLA players often talk about the problems that arise when they don't take what is given to them, but what has really been holding back the Bruins this season is when they don't take what is free.
UCLA (13-10, 6-5) ranks eighth in the Pac-12 with a 66.1 free-throw percentage and those misses have cost the Bruins several games.
They missed nine free throws in a 60-59 loss at Stanford, missed 11 in a 75-68 loss at Oregon and missed five in a 71-69 loss at Washington. The Bruins shot 58.3 percent on free throws in those three games, but had they shot 70 percent, those games would have been much different, and had they shot 80 percent, the Bruins would have won all three and would be alone in first place atop the Pac-12 standings.
Even in wins, the Bruins have put up some ugly numbers at the free-throw line. They were 9-for-17 against Arizona State and 13-of-22 against Utah. Those games ended in blowout victories for UCLA, but missed free throws still have a psychological effect and UCLA's players can't figure out how to fix it.
"In practice when we work on free throws we’re all really good free-throw shooters so it’s frustrating when we get in a game and we’re shooting 50 percent some games," said David Wear, who is second on the team at 77.8 percent on free throws this season.
Lazeric Jones, the team leader last season at 81 percent, is shooting only 65.7 percent in conference games this season. Tyler Lamb, a 70.8 percent shooter last season, is at 61.9 percent in conference this season and center Joshua Smith -- the team leader with 107 attempts, is shooting only 57.9 percent this season.
"It's frustrating because we’re good shooters," said Jerime Anderson, a 60 percent free-throw shooter. "We have guys that can put the ball in the basket. It’s got to be mental now. That’s exactly what it is. We just have to step up the confidence at the line and make our shots."
Jones said he is working on his free-throw mechanics and routine to try and get back to where he was last season. Lamb is also trying to find his stroke. Coach Ben Howland said he's devoting extra time in practice this week to free-throw shooting.
"I changed a few things this year and obviously it wasn’t working so I’m trying to go back to what I did last year," Jones said. "Coach is big on taking your time and I’ve been kind of rushing it a little bit so just going up there and taking my time and knocking them down."
Another issue is that the Bruins aren't getting to the line very often. They are ninth in the conference with 434 attempts. Wear has only 45 free-throw attempts and has had nine games this season where he didn't attempt a free throw. Travis Wear, the team leader at 84.3 percent, has gone to the line only 51 times and has attempted two or fewer free throws in 14 of his 20 games played.
And then there is the curious case of Norman Powell, a key reserve, who has played 205 minutes in conference games and has yet to take a free throw in those 11 games.
"That’s something he’s got to improve," Howland said. "He’s got to attack and want to get hit, want the contact. The bottom line is, 205 minutes without a foul shot is something he’s got to improve at. It’s not enough. Not even close. Good scorers get to the foul line and we need Norman to learn how to do that."
But no matter how often the Bruins get to the line, they still have to make them if they want to reverse the results of some of those close games they lost.
"We just need to take our time up there and not rush so much because we hit them in practice," David Wear said. "We just need to use that same concentration and that same routine in the games."